AKRON, Ohio — On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to honor MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old from Akron who was the first Black National Spelling Bee finalist.
Back in 1936, just 11 years after the National Spelling Bee was inaugurated, Cox was a spelling prodigy with an IQ through the roof.
Cox had qualified for the National Spelling Bee held in Washington, D.C., but her journey to get there wasn't easy, nor was her time competing in the Bee.
With segregation and Jim Crow laws still very much in full swing, Cox and another Black child, 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenny from New Jersey, were forced to travel to the National Spelling Bee in the "colored" car of the train, were unable to stay at the hotel with the other contestants, had to use the back door of the arena to get into the Bee and were forced to sit at a card table once inside.
Still, despite the hardships she faced, Cox went on to become the first African-American finalist in the Top Five and was on her way to victory, having extensively studied the 100,000 word list given to every speller in the Bee.
Cox overcame the obstacles in her way but could not get past the hatred in the hearts of the judges, who were all white southerners and had seen enough from the young Black girl from Akron.
A. Van Jordan, author of "M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A," said that what happened next was a despicable move from the Bee's judges.
"They pulled a word that was not on that list, and you can't make this up: the word was nemesis," Van Jordan said.
The word had just moved into popular vernacular and was at the time most defined as the Greek goddess of retribution—a proper noun that should have been an ineligible word—but the judges argued that the word could be used as a common noun.
Cox misspelled the unapproved word and was eliminated from the Bee.
Ohio senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown teamed up to pass the resolution in the Senate.
“I am proud to introduce this bipartisan resolution to honor the life and legacy of Ohio native MacNolia Cox,” said Portman. “As a 13-year old girl, MacNolia traveled to Washington, D.C. as one of the first Black students to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee where she endured segregation and racial discrimination. MacNolia’s determination to display her talents, all while many did not want to see her succeed, continues to encourage and inspire young students of color today.”
“As the first of two Black students to compete in the National Spelling Bee as a finalist, MacNolia Cox was a trailblazer for those who would follow in her footsteps,” said Brown. “The law required MacNolia to travel in segregated train cars to get to the Spelling Bee and custom required her to sit at a separate table from the other white finalists. MacNolia’s perseverance drove her through the barriers that had been placed in front of her and went on to finish fifth overall, inspiring young students of color today and every day. Let us continue to tell her story for future generations.”